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Columns   |    
Personal Accounts: An Unsuspected Recovery
Joshua Barlow
Psychiatric Services 2013; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.640801
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Mr. Barlow is a community recovery specialist with the Howard Center in Burlington, Vermont (e-mail: joshuabarlow369@yahoo.com). Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H., is editor of this column.

Copyright © 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association

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When I was in high school, I always pretended to be crazy. I made up stories about how crazy I was. I did stupid things. When I got out of high school, I started to drink at parties and smoke way too much marijuana. As always, I was trying to impress somebody. Maybe that somebody was me.

I floated here and there, tried other drugs like cocaine and LSD, and worked at jobs long enough to pay for all the partying I was doing. Soon after all of those parties lost their luster, I became more and more withdrawn. I also became hyperreligious and leapt into one faith and then another: Taoism, Catholicism, Wicca, and so on. Then I turned to self-help books. Then came the schizophrenia. It was 2001, and I was 21.

For a while, I refused to get out of bed. When I had to leave my mother’s house, I wandered aimlessly. My mother would give me money for groceries, and I would come home hours later with no groceries and no money—and no idea where I had been all day. This was apparently when I started hearing voices and having visual hallucinations.

One night I was wandering the streets of the town where I lived, and I had a very vivid hallucination about two of my friends at the time. They were talking. They were asking each other, “Should we do it? Should we show him?” and then, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I got the impression this was going to be bad. After that hallucination, I began to have a very long string of seemingly related hallucinations, or “pictures,” as I used to call them. They involved characters who told me that my whole life had been wasted until then, and that to make my life worthwhile, I had to forget everything I ever knew and listen only to them. If I did anything wrong, even one thing, I would be punished. They weren’t kidding.

At one point it got so bad, I actually screamed: “Please God, help me!”

Even though I was taking medication, for the next eight years or so, I felt compelled to do the bidding of the hallucinatory characters. When I thought I had done what they had told me to do, I would report to them in places where nobody could hear or see me. If I made a mistake, the hallucinations that followed were extremely vivid and terrifying. I experienced physical sensations of being beaten or even raped. I realize now that even if I had done exactly what these hallucinatory tormentors wanted, these “punishments” would happen anyway, in my mind. After a long time, I started believing in these “lessons” and spent days trying to complete tasks that were very random and really meaningless. But to me, at that time, the potential consequences of not completing these tasks were as serious as a heart attack.

Once my medication regimen improved and became more effective, I started to break away from these voices and their bidding, and then I started to fight back. I only got so far, and then I became paranoid and began to think that a real person was doing this to me psychically. There was, in my own blurred rationale, some sort of conspiracy group whose sole motivation was to ruin my life with these hallucinations. They had robbed me of my twenties, causing horrible suffering for their own amusement. Luckily, I never identified anybody as these conspirators. Of course, they did not exist, either.

Finally, around 2008 I started taking an even better medication, a long-acting injectable, and those delusions and terrible characters (hallucinations) faded. For a while life was good, but my relationships with my family had suffered greatly, and my friends at the time were only there to smoke pot and drink. I tried to have romantic relationships, but most were short lived. Eventually, I decided I needed to try to move on.

I got married, and my son, Eli, was born on December 10, 2009. Six months later, my wife left me and the baby and divorced me in the following year. I have since realized I was more of a caretaker than a husband, and there was no real love there. I was still trying to make up for all that I had failed to learn during those years of isolation spent in my own head, when I was trying to solve the mysteries of random visions that had no actual meaning.

Currently my son and my mother live with me in a rather nice apartment. I have full custody of Eli, and because of him my life has turned around completely. My sole psychiatric medication keeps the demons at bay. But it was my faith in the real world that really healed me. My son has given me every lesson I ever needed to learn and every reward that I could ever be given. There will be plenty of time for better things for him and me, now and in the future.

I currently work for Howard Center as a peer recovery support specialist. The work has value and has greatly enriched my life. People who are going through similar crises seem to gain a lot from hearing parts of my story, which I usually tell in more detail than I have space for in this column. I am constantly surprised to learn how many people have similar tales to tell.

Most people don’t even know I’m sick, because I have almost no symptoms—my auditory and visual hallucinations are gone. If I choose to reveal my illness, that same majority almost always seems surprised. Years ago, I never would have thought it was possible for this man—who used to laugh at jokes nobody else could hear and at one point was nearly catatonic—to end up with a “normal” person’s life.

At the moment I don’t personally know any other person with schizophrenia who does not hear voices at all. This may not be unusual, and whenever I think of it, I know that there are people who are even further into recovery than I am. I’ve read about lawyers, engineers, and therapists who long ago conquered their own terrible visions and screaming auditory hallucinations through varied means. I myself am still working hard at getting well and staying in control. I think anybody else would do the same if they knew they could. Part of my job is to let them know they can.

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